- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska prison employees want higher pay, safer work conditions and better communication with the department’s top administrators, according to a nearly yearlong survey released Wednesday.

The Department of Correctional Services’ in-house “culture study” is part of a larger effort to reduce employee turnover and avoid dangerous situations in Nebraska’s prison system.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the study confirms many of the concerns he has heard since he took the job in January 2015, and will help him focus on areas needing improvement.

“We will move this agency in a direction that it needs to move,” Frakes said, but acknowledged that some the changes could take years to enact.

Staffing shortages, mandatory overtime and inexperienced staff members have been cited as factors contributing to a dangerous work environment in the prisons. Prison employees and their union have said those conditions were partly to blame for a May 2015 prison riot in Tecumseh that left two inmates dead.

Frakes said he is committed to addressing complaints regarding pay, but doing so could prove challenging because salary scales are determined through collective bargaining with all state agencies, not just the corrections department.

Longtime prison employees and union officials have said the current system is unfair because it provides new prison employees with the same pay as those who have decades of experience working with inmates.

Sharon Rues Pettid, the governor’s chief human resources officer, said state officials will try to address concerns about longevity pay when they sit down for the next round of bargaining with employees. Rues Pettid said previous administrations haven’t allowed the issue on the table in at least a decade.

Lawmakers who were briefed on the report said the worker pay complaints are a major concern, but noted that addressing them immediately could be challenging given an expected state budget shortfall next year.

“It’s easy to identify the need, but it’s very difficult when you’re trying to negotiate with all state employees,” said Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, whose district includes the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

Watermeier said the state may want to consider treating prison workers differently than other employees because their jobs involve greater risk and fewer qualified people are interested in the work.

In addition, just one-third of the front-line corrections officers and caseworkers said they were satisfied with top leaders at the facility where they work. Other employees complained about poor communication from top managers.

Frakes said he has set clear expectations that managers need to listen more and dispel any fears that workers might face retaliation for reporting a problem. He also promised to end a perceived “good old boy” culture in the prison system and shift to one that promotes employees based on merit.

“These perceptions took years to develop, which means changing them will not occur overnight,” Frakes said. “But we are committed to changing.”

The report also highlighted concerns that inmates are younger and more violent, with stronger gang ties than in years past. Frakes said the trend has emerged in other parts of the country as well.

The study included responses from 471 of roughly 2,200 department employees at all levels and in all of the state’s prison facilities.

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